All this talk of innovation, transformation, and inspiration has got me thinking of bus rides. Universities today swim in a sea of overwrought rhetoric. They trumpet their patents, their entrepreneurship, their empowering humanities research; they build transformative community synergies and interdisciplinary partnerships; they link up with business and government to produce ground-breaking research.

HumourMattersArticleAnd it’s not enough to exaggerate faculty accomplishment. Supercharged bluster and transformative bombast now infect graduate school and flow down to the greenest first year student. I mean, it’s not enough to just be a smart PhD student anymore. Everything you do has to be ground-breaking and original, and if you want a major award you’d better add leadership and civic engagement to the list. Big surprise that every applicant wants to sound like Gandhi reincarnated. “Oh, sure, he’s got publications, but has he brought down the British Empire?”

And don’t get me started on undergraduates. One Toronto-area school (I’ll leave its name for you, Google, and the NSA to find out) runs slick television commercials in which undergraduate students proudly herald their anticipated future accomplishments.

“2032,” one announces over an important-sounding piano score, “I oversee the development of the first lunar space port.”

“I will develop something the world has never seen,” declares another, who looks suspiciously attractive and non-dorky. All this under the tag line, “This is my time,” a rather incongruous sentiment when all the imagined accomplishments lie more than a decade away.

That last complaint may sound like mocking the Rebel Alliance from the comfort of the Death Star. But I’m a graduate of that unnamed institution and hold it in high regard and deep affection. Indeed, as a graduate student, I spent thousands of hours riding a bus to and from its rather unfortunate location. That was our time, and we cursed that commute and hoped against hope that a subway might, one day, relieve our suffering. Building a moon port would have seemed, to us, a tad premature. Cue the piano: “2017, a subway saves us 12 minutes and marginally reduces our discomfort. This is my time.”

To this day, however, I remain convinced that every lurching, uncomfortable bus-riding minute was worth it. That university did not transform me into a font of innovation—my own self-branding goals might be summed up as “boundless mediocrity” (a phrase that, sadly but appropriately, I didn’t even think of myself)—but it’s possible that I left it just a little bit smarter than when I arrived. Those overcrowded bus rides didn’t hurt either. When you’re standing about four inches from your lurching neighbor, you inevitably get to talking about thesis research, and by the end of the ride, you might know just a little bit more about an unfamiliar topic.

Surely that form of learning—little bits of knowledge spread around, face-to-face, to many somewhat smart people—is a more laudable academic purpose than trumped-up transformation. Absent a few historical flashpoints, human progress has been a long, sometimes agonizing, always inefficient process of small incremental gains. Universities have played host both to dramatic change and the more creeping picayune process of improvement. We should probably recognize that the latter always outnumbers the former, and that we depend on the middling improvements more than the sexy, epochal ones. I mean, even Gandhi needed someone to proofread
his footnotes.

Granted, “making our middle-range students seem marginally less idiotic” will not win many awards for public sector branding. Nor are we likely to attract donors with ukulele-scored videos with unattractive students declaring, “This is my B minus”. And “Raising the bar on mediocrity” might not please many neo-liberal governments or Silicon Valley visionaries. But surely there’s as much merit in thousands of small gains as there is in one big one, and just as much value in a bus ride as a space port.

Steve Penfold is Academic Matters’ humour columnist. He moonlights as an Associate Professor of History at the University of Toronto.